And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'”
– Luke 4:5-8
“In God We Trust.”
This is the official motto of the United States of America. Take out your wallet. Grab a dollar bill, or even a penny. You’ll see it, bold and capitalized on every piece of American currency.
Any discussion about currency always brings one of my favorite moments in the gospels to mind. Nearing the end of his ministry, it seems as though Jesus is questioned at every turn. The authorities, both Jewish and Roman, were increasingly fearful of the social unrest that seemed to surround Jesus. As those in authority tend to do when they perceive a threat to their power, they began to plot a demise for Jesus.
So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.
– Luke 20:20-26
You’ll hear this text most often preached moralistically. What Jesus meant as a snarky comeback to the compromised church leaders of his day is now used as a justification for paying taxes and avoiding the ire of the IRS (see what I did there?).
But there is something a little deeper than a witty remark here. Jesus tells the gathered crowd, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. In the same way, give to God what is God’s.” This simple statement, if taken out of context from the rest of the Christian narrative as it often is, sounds logical enough. If nothing else, at least this Jesus guy speaks rationally, right? [… said no one, ever, by the way. The Kingdom of God turns everything we know on its head.]
Given this text’s larger context in scripture, there is a deeper meaning that is rarely explored in modern homiletics. Way back at the beginning, in Genesis 1, the narrator tells us that women and men were created in the image of God. Gallons of ink have been spilled and millions of pages spent in order to attempt to explain this phrase. There is no way to be sure exactly what it means.
Here’s the thing: if you operate within a biblical worldview, SURPRISE! We are all made in the image of God. We are all little coins with God’s face stamped on us. We are to be given to God because we are God’s.
And so this trite little retort becomes a deeply beautiful anthropological and theological statement. Such is Jesus’ way with words.
Still, this short interlude in the action-packed gospel leaves many Americans scratching their heads. Sure, okay, we shouldn’t invest too much time or energy in earning money. But what else could Jesus mean?
I often wish Jesus had left behind a manual about how to interact with human government in a uniquely Christian way. While Jesus was a little busy accomplishing slightly more important things with his short time on earth, there is quite a bit we can glean from scripture and from the historical context of Jesus.
The Roman Empire into which little baby Jesus was born, contrary to what you may have been told before, had an extraordinarily lenient stance on religion. Given the vast territory subjected to the rule of Caesar, there were naturally many different religions within the conquered land of the empire. Rather than force all the people under Roman rule to adhere to any one religion, the emperor instead had only one requirement. Put simply in modern language, it might have read something like this: “You can practice whatever religion you want as passionately as you desire, as long as you also make sacrifices to the Roman gods.”
While their own religion was important to them, there was one thing the Roman authorities valued over everything else: power. Instead of forcing conversion upon all the people subjugated under the empire and thereby risking peaceful control, the Romans adopted one of the most indulgent religious policies in the history of conquering empires.
As a result, the Jews in Palestine were allowed to continue in their practices. They were allowed to go to the synagogues and perform their own sacrifices. They were allowed to dress, act, and speak as they wanted. The Jewish leaders of the day even collaborated with the Roman governors to maintain this peaceful rule.
There are letters dating as early as 96 AD recording Roman confusion regarding Christians from emperors who were facing the slow but steady rise of the church. Some would even say to captured Christians, “Look, you don’t even have to mean it. We don’t care what you actually believe. Just perform one sacrifice, and we’ll let you live.” Some would comply and live. Others would refuse and face certain death.
I’m certainly not the first to do so, nor will I be the last, but I would like to point out the striking similarities between the Roman Empire and the United States of America.
Contrary to popular belief, America is not a Christian nation. Many of the founding fathers and mothers were deists at best, who believed in a hands-off god, a creator who immediately stepped into the other room. Upon facing religious persecution, these people sailed to a new land, seized it from the people they found there, and fought for a new kind of nation with its roots deep in religious tolerance.
Today, religious tolerance in America remains much the same on paper. Anyone can live here and practice their religion, right? There seems to me to be an unspoken part of this tolerance, though. “You can practice whatever religion you want as passionately as you desire,” your average American might say, “as long as you also bow down to the American gods.”
I know, I know. You’re already skeptical. What are these American gods? Well, a person who is not enamored with the “greatest country in the world” can name them faster than a New York minute.
The first and most dangerous of the American gods is patriotism. It’s no problem what you believe as long as you bleed red, white and blue, right? As long as you’re proud to be an American? Christians have been entrenched in American culture for so long that this god is so often confused with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Gospel is so often confused with the American dream, and the result is an ineffectual, dying church.
In case you were wondering, there are actually several American gods. Many American Christians (myself included!) are utterly enslaved to capitalism. We go to school as soon as we can walk and talk, in order to get a good education, so that we can get a good job to pay the bills and buy stuff, which will make us happy and fulfilled. This is the lie all of us buy into because we are indoctrinated from the time we are born.
After one of the most toxic and divisive elections in the history of this nation, I’ll also suggest that politics is another. How many of us celebrated or despaired on November 9th? How many of us spent the evening with our eyes glued to the television, waiting with baited breath for the arrival of our next president, of the one who would next lead us in our American worship?
This disturbing list goes on and on.
“In God We Trust.”
Here and now, in modern America, this motto seems almost comically out of place. Emblazoned upon the very objects of our idolatry, we boldly declare our trust in God. Sure, Americans have trust in God. We trust in the god of our nation, in the god of our economy, in the god of our polity. We trust in our own ability to select a leader who we hope will fix everything, and when they fail, we turn our attention to the next up-and-coming savior.
The worst of it is that there are so many American Christian men and women who have no idea of their own idolatry. They firmly believe in the American Gospel, while the Gospel of Jesus Christ sits untouched, growing dusty on the shelf beneath newspapers, self-help books and phone chargers.
If you believe America is a Christian nation, you will always be sorely disappointed. You will always weep after a particularly venomous election, or celebrate in relief once your candidate has beat out the other. You will always feel hopeless in the face of all that threatens the future of our country. Friends, America is just a red-white-and-blue-streaked Rome. If you have any doubt, look at the Christian church in South Korea, or South America, or even the whole continent of Africa. The church grows and thrives more in these places of religious intolerance that it ever has in our “Christian” nation.
If you believe America offers you the greatest kind of freedom there is, I want to offer you the kind of freedom that enables you to be certain of the future no matter who is elected as president. I want to offer you the kind of freedom that releases you from slavery to money and things. I want to offer you the kind of freedom that says, “There is a new kind of kingdom breaking into the world, a kingdom with a polity of mercy and an economics of grace.” I want to offer you the freedom of the one, true God.
If we as a church want to learn to thrive in this nation that many social scientists have termed “post-Christian America,” we must to be honest about where we find ourselves. We are a pitifully idolatrous people. We give ourselves whiplash turning away from the God of the Universe toward these impotent gods that can offer us nothing but heartache and hopelessness.
Sisters and brothers, we need a revival in the truest sense, one that will overthrow the American gods that are seated upon the most treasured spot in the throne room of our hearts. I hope you’ll join me, because I expect it will be a pretty wild ride.
See, even Jesus was tempted with these same gods we Americans so blindly worship. Satan said, “Listen, bro, all of the kingdoms of this world are in my possession. Just say the word, and they will be yours!” Jesus, already endowed with all the power and authority of God, already king of a kingdom that was even then breaking into this broken world, was totally uninterested. “Keep your kingdoms,” Jesus replied. “I’ve got my own, and it is infinitely better.”
In this time of fearful uncertainty and hopelessness, when everything inside of us pushes us on our faces before these false gods, may we lift our eyes to the one, true God and find ourselves in that one, true kingdom, which is indeed infinitely better than any of our own devising.
Grace and peace,